Tricks of the Descriptive DM (REPOST)

The room before you is dusty, the scent of mildew and dead flowers puts a bitter taste in your mouth. This is an old room, and from the looks of it, it hasn’t been touched in years. Sunlight fights its way through a filthy window pane, casting everything in gloomy, pale shades of blue. A delicate vanity sits against the wall, the mirror shrouded with a sheet that has stained yellow over the passage of ages. Dominating the room, an obviously expensive bed wasted by time, its mattress drooping miserably, the wooden frame twisted in neglect. Upon a dusty nightstand you can see a novel, the pages dry and brown. Upon the floor, near a thick oval shaped rug; a picture frame lays face-down, the fragile glass shattered and broken into angry, jagged pieces.

The one thing that good old fashioned D&D has over any computer game, is that the graphics are a lot better. Thinking back to some of the games that I’ve played, I don’t see myself sitting at a table, tapping my pencil on my cheetoh stained character sheet while seeing how long I can get a d10 to spin. I am magically taken back to standing in some dark and cold corridor illuminated by the fighters torch. I’m crouched down in front of a thick wooden door, forcing all of my attention to the grimy, brass lock; my picks . . . Extensions of my own fingers, feel their way around the mechanism. . . The cleric sighs in that impatient way as she fights the instinct to tell me to hurry before something comes, then “CLICK”! I GOT IT!!!

How much do you tell your PC’s?

You want to give them enough information about what they are seeing, but we also want to give them a bit more. I remember some DM’s that didn’t care about this, “You walk into a room and there are 3 trolls in there, roll for initiative.” BORING!!! But I’ve also had DM’s on the other side of the tracks who spend 5 minutes describing the shine on a leather couch. BORING!!!

How much is TOO much? Modules tend to get overly wordy in their descriptions, but that is because we as the DM have to be able to see a room before we can describe it. When writing my own dungeons, I’ll just list important things that are in the room, and wait to creatively describe them on game day.

The trick to knowing what too much is and if you’re not giving enough is based on the importance of the room. Logically, the scene about the abandoned room that I described above must be an important room that contains a mystery to be solved, or an object to find, or an encounter just waiting to happen. If this was just window dressing then you don’t want to get overly specific, the human brain is a magnificent tool and the players will color in all of the details to fill up the missing space. You just have to use your judgment, but as a rule of thumb, if it isn’t something that you would typically role-play, then keep it brief.

That said, what kind of stuff should the DM describe to his players? As a writer, one of the things that I do is experience something first hand and pay attention to the world around me. When you walk into a hospital, typically it isn’t what you see that you notice first, but how it smells. Try making a habit of this, pay attention to your other senses, and make mental notes of them. What do you see, feel, hear, smell. This is what we will be focusing on.

I Spy . . .

I know that all DM’s describe contents of rooms, but most of us need to work on specifics. Instead of just saying that there is a table in the room, quickly describe it so that the players can see the table.

A monstrously, large table. A dirty wooden table. A spotless, glass table. Be specific without being overly wordy. We need to separate this table from all of the other tables that are out there in the world.

Visually, we notice large objects first, or shiny objects that catch our eyes. Visualize the room yourself, and quickly tell the players what they need to know so that you are all looking at roughly the same room, starting from large objects and work your way down to obvious small ones. This doesn’t include objects that characters need to search for, just the general appearance.

Do you smell that?

You may not notice this, but smells are hardwired directly into our nervous systems in a way that profoundly effects how we feel towards something. They also trigger memories, we remember weird stuff like how our mom’s purse smelled, or grandpa’s pipe. We want to incorporate the smell of a place as well as the visual aspects of it.

Obviously we don’t need to over do this one, a musty dungeon is always going to smell musty and we’ll quickly start to ignore this smell. But through smells, we can hint at an encounter. Trolls are known to live in filth, chances are you are going to be able to smell them way before you see them.

The young lady has a sweet smell. The distinct odor of death waifs out of the cave entrance. Greasy old barrels stacked against the wall stink of mold and waste. Don’t just describe the bad smells, yes we notice these more then pleasant smells, but you can quickly color a scene with the use of a scent faster then you can describe it visually.

The rich smell of jasmine permeates the garden. The smell of the morning dew wakes you up in the morning. The creeping wind reeks of rain and violence, a storm is coming . . . A big one!

I‘ve got a bad feeling about this

We often forget physical touch, especially when dealing with objects. How an object feels in our hands is sometimes important. I’m sure that we’ve all played the Halloween party about “Old Herman’s Eyes”. If a character picks something up, how does it feel? Is it cold or warm to the touch? Smooth or rough? Soft or scratchy?

Some things we can feel before we can see.

There is an energy in the air that causes the hair on your arms to raise and your knees to ache.

A hot wind shoots out of the open hole, blowing your hair as you peer into the unforgiving darkness.

As the dragon reels himself up, his large powerful chest expands as all of the air seems to rush out of the room towards him.

A gentle summer breeze gently kisses you, while a bitter winter wind bites at you. Cold water can either give you relief or be terribly unpleasant depending upon your situation.

Hearing is believing

Our ears are one of our prime defenses, especially an edgy adventurer whose senses are keen. Sometimes the lack of sounds tells you more about your surroundings then what you’re eyes can see. Describing what a character hears is another trick to quickly describing a scene.

Birds singing morning songs in the meadow.

A loathsome howl seems to come from everywhere around you, yet the exact source seems to be nowhere at all.

The tired, old boat creaks and moans as it sails under a wide, starry night sky. In the distance, a lonesome whale sings a sad song that makes your heart ache, and your mind thoughtful.

Taste This, it just fell out of my nose

Tastes are more rarely described, but some smells can be so strong that it effects our tongues as well. They can be used to hint at an encounter, or be used to describe a dreadful attack where an unfortunately gross sliming can occur. Drinking potions could be described to color them up some. A spooky witch woman who lives deep in a dark swamp would make a healing potion that tastes much different from that which a high-priestess of light would make.

Some magical effects would also come with a smell of burnt ozone and leave a distinctly metallic taste in ones mouth. Poisons, even injected ones, tend to immediately flood the mouth with a bitter taste, thus instead of simply telling a player that he has been poisoned, we can quickly describe what he is feeling instead.

Other applications

We don’t just have to use our descriptions while dealing with settings, we want to describe the whole world so that they can explore it first hand.

Avoid all mention of numbers outside of combat. If the players find a Long Sword+2 in a broken boat that’s been floating aimlessly down the river, don’t just come out and say it. Encourage the warrior to notice that the blade isn’t rusty or aged at all. The quality is superb! Despite being rained on and left unattended the blade is still sharper then what he could ever grind his to be.

Art objects should be written up during prep, and described as well. Same process for any magical item. Make them earn everything by being inquisitive and immersing themselves into your world.

The key is to avoid as many mentions of numbers as possible, turning the players characters from a sheet of paper marked with stats, into a real, living and breathing entity that takes in their world as we do, which brings us to a huge part of this little essay . . .

Describing Encounters

We all have players that have memorized the Monstrous Manual . . . Hell, I am one! You throw a monster at me, then I know the quickest way to defeat it. It’s not intentional, it just comes naturally. I WANT TO WIN!!! You can spice up the encounter by refraining from using the creatures name. Use logic about it, ask yourself if this character has ever encountered such a creature in his life! How does he know that such and such monster is vulnerable to cold attacks, or that only a plus weapon can strike the monster? “I read it in the MM.” isn’t an acceptable answer, but we are all guilty of letting this logic go.

Instead of just telling the players what it is that they are fighting, you can create a sense of mystery and horror by hiding your monster behind descriptions.

You see before you what at first appeared to be a pack of dogs, but their filthy grey fur is caked with blood and gore and they are laughing. This insane, whiney laughter mixed with high pitched chatter chills you to the bone. They dodge back and forth in ways that convince you that they are mad, yet their drooling mouths aren’t frothed, and their round, piggish eyes glare into your soul with unmistakable intelligence. They keep their distance, as they circle your camp. What do they want?

This description is pretty long, but I wanted to use it as an example. It isn’t anything all that powerful, I simply described Hyenas to a party that hadn’t ever seen them before. After they encounter it a couple of times, and get to understand what they are then I can just throw the name hyena out there.

AVOID NUMBERS!!! During combat, it’s just to hard unless you’re playing with a small group. I don’t ever come right out and say what my Armor Class is, I ask the players what they rolled and tell them if they hit or not. I do prefer to get through combat as quickly and smoothly as possible. If it is a small enough encounter then I may keep up with just describing the scene, but I find that there are only so many ways to say, “I swung my war hammer!”

I do describe how the creature responds to the damage, and all odd attacks that are unique to that specific creature, but for claw claw bite, that’s as boring as saying that I swung my sword.

Is this right for my game?

What we are doing is projecting feelings. By describing the scene through all of our senses, we encourage our players to have an emotional response to the scene. We are making it more real to them, and aiding them to have exceptionally vivid visualizations. This does take practice and awareness on our part.

A great practice technique that I employ is to imagine an alien fruit from another planet. What does it look like? What does it smell like? What does it feel like in your hands? Taste it, how did it sound when you took a bite from it? Is it juicy or dry? Is it sweet or have some other taste?

Burning out players with over doing it

We are going for simplicity here, less is more. We are also going for specifics! Speed is key, if the players want to know more about an object, then they will ask questions about it. If you over do it, then you are going to bore and frustrate your them. You want to supply them with just a few specifics so that they can see the settings in their minds.

If you over explain a room or an object it could cause your Players to believe that there is something to the scene that really isn’t there. Don’t neglect the rooms, but don’t over do it either. If your characters get obsessed about unraveling the mystery of the overstuffed red reading chair, then that is your cue that you went to far, it’s up to you if you want to reward them for their curiosity or just tell them that it’s a just a chair. Also watch out for them taking everything that isn’t nailed down, which does tend to be a problem for groups that aren’t use to this approach. Just tone down your descriptions of the junk, and remember it when they are trying to retrieve something from their backpack.

End Notes

Some things also shouldn’t be described. Combat gore should be avoided, it can be misleading, and no matter how bad we want our stories to be realistic, we just can’t do it when combat is concerned. I guess I should just say that I’ve play tested violence, and can get it to work to some extent, but I could never keep it consistent. Why can you hit a 10th level fighter with a sword thirty times with a two-handed broadsword? As much as we would like to believe that it makes sense, it’s just a delusion that we keep with us while playing. It’s a necessary evil, I’d be pissed if you killed my 10th level fighter with a single swing of your sword!

Also think about other mechanics that this might apply to. How does infravision work in your world? THAT is a big question. In my world, it’s based on heat.

Describing magic consistently is challenging, but try to pass that kind of stuff off to your characters. Do encourage them to describe what they are doing so that the other players can visualize it as well. It helps get their creative juices flowing, and to me, that is what makes the game so damned fun!

By properly describing what is happening, instead of just telling them stuff, it colors the world in which you game in, and makes it come alive to your players. They will SEE distant mountains fogged in danger, they will feel the forest seem to swallow them up when they enter its dark embrace. They’ll smell the food as they walk the market streets. They’ll cringe in horror as an unknown . . . Thing stares back at them from the darkness of an ancient tomb.

With just a little bit of work on your part, instead of it just being a another gaming session for your players, it will become an intense experience that will leave them panting for more and giving them stories that they can take with them for the rest of their lives. GOOD LUCK!

(This Article was originally published by myself on April 22, 2008)

Adventure Notes #11

I had originally intended to take the party to the Mad House, while there I was going to hurt them. A sadistic Doctor treating them as guests for a day or two, but then suddenly deciding that they should be patients. He would put them through treatments that are torturous that are intended to drive the characters mad.

This would had been a really tough game to DM, as players really hate to be contained and kept prisoner, and it’s very hard to do! There was a lot more involved, and my intent was to target my newer players whom now get the mechanics behind the game, but are not ready for the next step, which is role-playing. My logic is that I think that it would be easier to roleplay madness then the tough guy that all new players want to play.

This is what I prepped for, but this isn’t what happened. Instead, two days before the game I learned that I was getting 2 more new players. Players that didn’t cut their teeth on 3rd edition and have never played a game before. THIS WAS NOT THAT GAME!!!! So instead of heading to the Sanitarium, mindless hack and slash was called for! This actually turned out for the best, as it forced me to up my timeline and explore a new route.

On Game day, the two guys which I was going to target with forced roleplaying called in, which really hurt the game. I had believed that I set my monsters to high for 4 players to deal with, but as it turns out I really didn’t challenge them enough.

Well, the newbies were challenged! My new players are Raiden whom is playing an ex-soldier, and Kim who is playing a Detective. Raiden originally wanted to play a Spell-caster, however those things are WAY to hard for novice players so I restricted him from doing that. Yes our party really could use a Wizard, however not at the expense of a new players experience with the game. I believe that your first character should always be either a Fighter or a Thief. If you are a book worm and really push the issue, then I’ll let you cut your teeth with a Priest. I find Wizards take a lot of experience with the game to really keep alive, and even then there is a healthy dose of luck involved! Maybe that is just me being unfair?

Anyway, I wanted to return to the isle of Dread and say goodbye in style. I designed one hell of a fight! When the party shot off their flare gun to alert their ship that they were ready to go, they alerted the surviving members of the “Six-Fingered Hand” to their location, and also caught the attention of a wandering T-Rex, a 30th level monster which can swallow anything whole with an attack roll of 19 or better.

The first on the scene was the Hand, their party was now only 2. The Voodoo Queen, and the Beetle. After a couple of rounds the T-Rex showed up, my intent was to force both parties to unite, except for The Voodoo Queen whom was attempting to dominate the creature and use it as a weapon. Spells take longer to cast in this world, all cast times are doubled, but I fudged the rules, She would get the creature after 3 rounds. The problem was that the party was still firing on her, completely ignoring the T-Rex until it entered the melee, and then they left it to the Sharp Shooter to take out with called shots. Of course the Detective pulled off a miracle shot on the thing and took out 35hp in one round (we’re playing with guns, all 6’s rolled are counted and then re-rolled) It only took one called shot from the Gunfighter to bring that mammoth down. This made the Voodoo Queen a tad angry, and behind the screen she had died 3 times, however I needed her to tell the story. She is ready to cast a no good spell but right when she was ready to set it off, BANG! The Beetle shoots her in the back of the head and reveals that he is Mr. Black, the mole on the inside that’s been feeding them information.

The Beetle knows where the last piece of the Artifact is, which was enough leverage to force the party to work with him. Their ship rescues them from the island, however all is still not well. In the time that they were away, most of their food supply has been found to be rotten, the ships engine broke down and requires a part, forcing the ship to rely solely on the sails, which are also in short supply. And to top it all off, the ship has been hassled nightly by the ghost of “Queen Anne’s Revenge”.

Blackbeard had two purposes, the first was to acquire the pieces of the artifact and deliver them to the Si-Fan whom have been lurking in the distance waiting for somebody to do the hard work for them. He was also suppose to destroy the parties ship and sink her into the Atlantic Ocean. He didn’t get any of this done, it was exciting! An undead pirate crew trying to take the Embargo, she shot down her masts and crippled her, then the crew of the damned boarded, slaughtering all of the crew without remorse. Blackbeard boarded, and got to have some fun, however Misty, with the help of the Artifact was able to turn him, and the rest of the party shot him down and saved the ship.

They had enough masts on board to quickly fix the problem, and made their way to Florida where they discovered that they were flat broke. I WAS able to take all of their money! And as a reward for good playing, they were unable to pay the crew to take them to Germany, however they were able to sell the ship for a nice big chunk of change.

From Florida they caught a ship going to Germany, where Beetle led them to the Safe House of the Six Fingered Hand which the last piece of the artifact is being kept, the abandoned home of Dr. Frankenstein.

Of course I couldn’t make it THAT easy. Upon their arrival, they discover that all of the men there are dead, and the artifact has been stolen. They conducted an investigation and found evidence that it was the Si-Fan, and found a letter from Fu Manchu directed at them, taunting them to find him in his lair in London.

This marked the end of our little thrown together adventure. They actually moved faster then I thought that they would, but this one was designed to teach them the different mechanics involved. I did start off the new players at 5th level, which I feel kind of bad for. Before game day Shannon had ran them a quick mini-game, but I read that Gygax had very strict rules about inducting new players. They were to be run one-on-one at 1st level, I wish that I could had made this happen, but this game is more difficult then your average D&D game. I think that both of them still had fun, and are looking forward to the last phase of the game before we start our brand new campaign, which I must admit to really be looking forward to. It will be nice to get back to Pulp Fantasy, of course I’ll still keep my elements of horror in as that is my style, but I am anxious to get back to the games roots of Swords and armor. That, and I really enjoy DM low level characters! I know that a lot of DM’s hate it, but perhaps that is fodder for another post.

Pitfalls & Triumphs of the Realm of Terror

Our friend and scholar, James Maliszewski from Grognardia (a slightly popular blog, maybe you’ve heard of it?) reviewed a module that runs deep for me, the original Ravenloft Module put out in 1983.

I had originally tried to post a comment on his blog, but evil Internet fairies ate it, which I suppose is for the best, as I do have a lot to say, and I really shouldn’t be wasting his bandwidth with my drivel.

I purchased this Module years after it was released. I haven’t ever ran the story that came with it, but I bought the thing for its map of Strahd’s castle. This amazingly popular module spawned it’s own setting, also named Ravenloft. It is this setting which I cut my DMing teeth upon. I must admit that I really don’t “get” fantasy. I mean, I read it from time to time, but never anything new. I value my time to much to read anything that can’t be told in a book or two. I don’t understand fantasy, but I do have a firm grasp upon Gothic horror. This is my favorite genre! And to be able to run a Dungeons and Dragons campaign in a setting such as this . . . Well it was a natural fit for me.

Ravenloft was an experiment. In some ways it was a huge success, and in many ways it failed utterly. The basis behind the setting was an interesting one. The greatest evil beings of all time were drawn into the mist, an astral world which was a prison, or perhaps it was a weapon of mass destruction? Nobody really knows, THAT was left up to the DM to figure out.

Strahd became just one of the Dark Lords of this realm. He controlled the land, and all within it, as did the other Dark Lords, whom were all blessed with land however suffering some curse that was debilitating to them. Time was ignored, as were seasons; The realm of Adam (read Frankenstein) was based during a time of electricity in a very German world, while G’Henna run by a knock off of Mr Hyde was Midevil and perpetually Summer.

This was brilliant! Complete with all of the 2nd Edition fluff that one would expect, a DM could have a field day with this kind of atmosphere! It originally got expanded in a box set that was one of the greatest boxes of all time. Realm of Terror (1990): It was chock full of nothing but fluff and atmosphere. It gave a creative DM enough fodder to keep a table happy for many many years.

If they would had stopped there, I doubt that we would be having this conversation. Modules were written, that were absolutely terrible. A great world changing catastrophe which they called, “The Grand Conjunction”. Much like the plot of the original Ravenloft Module, the players could not stop this from happening in any way.

The Box Set went from, Giving a DM just enough information to fuel his imagination, to coming out with these monstrosities that were so big and powerful that if you wanted to play the Cannon world, then you were stuck dealing with. Game masters became too afraid to use the adventure hooks supplied in the box set, because once they did run a game of their own creation, TSR would put out a map and module set that completely destroyed what you did.

THIS ISN’T ROLE-PLAYING!!!! There were no choices to be made, DM’s had to buy these products or else they simply weren’t running Cannon. This was the greatest failure of Ravenloft. Like Forgotten Realms before it, Ravenloft simply got to big and could make too much money, and pretty soon, that was all it was good for, making money.

The Grand Conjunction literally tore the map apart. Dark Lords died, different lands joined the Core, while others floated off into the Sea of Sorrow. This world takes place on the Astral Plane, this kind of stuff can happen, but it did it in such a way that it did ruin it. Players couldn’t effect this, it happened on its own and they were just in for the ride.

Probably the best book to come out for the setting was Domains of Dread, it was probably the last Ravenloft sourcebook to come out for 2e. It was awesome, but it too had its failures, the maps were unreadable, but other then that, it was a great book! Which was needed since TSR tore the heck out of it.

Now Ravenloft is not without it’s triumphs! It is a world that is not level appropriate. Players knew that the deck was stacked, and that it wasn’t stacked in their favor. They were the minority, they had to fight against incredible odds, survival was never guaranteed. Magical items were not handed out like candy in a chocolate store, but death was! This led to some truly heroic deeds. If Ravenloft has one lesson, it teaches players how to be a hero. Good vs. Evil in a realm completely dominated by evil. If a player fails, or resorts to an evil act himself, then he runs the risk of being taken by the realm. THAT is cool, and is still a theme in all of my games.

Ravenloft also taught DM’s how to make truly living and breathing NPCs. In the hands of a talented game master, these NPC’s are tools to better convey a story, a bridge between the DM and his players. Unfortunately, these NPC’s still don’t help cover up bad behavior on the part of weak Dungeon Masters. Were the NPCs abused? You betcha, but weak Dungeon Masters abuse everything that they have at their disposal, so we really can’t judge Ravenloft for that.

If I could do it over again, as I’m never going to go back into the realms of Ravenloft, I wish that I had the knowledge that I have now.

  1. Screw Cannon! It is just a marketing ploy. Players don’t read up on settings, and you can do just as good, if not better then any company when drawing up dungeons.
  2. Don’t WRITE UP dungeons. Material should be written up for sittings, not settings. Isn’t that clever? Yeah, I hate it too, but it makes sense. I put so much work on writing modules that I never used. It was fun, but a total waste of my time.
  3. And finally, Scenarios are meant to be interactive. I used those Ravenloft modules as a basis for writing my own adventures, and that was a huge mistake that I repeated over and over until I identified the problem.

Not bad for something that I really enjoyed when I should had been going to collage!

Problems Identified

There has been some great feedback to my adventure notes 9 and 10. Very noteworthy being from Joshua at Tales of the Rambling Bumblers, which I encourage everyone to check out, as he really takes the “Sandbox Concept” and spells it out to crystal clarity.

His post serves as a cautionary tale about what to avoid in a sandbox campaign. It seems Ripper X was a little too wedded to the sandbox concept and could probably have been a bit more liberal with his random encounters (as in, fudge the die rolls so they actually happen, or adjust the rules so you’re rolling more frequently) without infringing too much on the spirit of the game. Moreover, it’s important to note that sandbox games are defined by their lack of a linear plot — but not necessarily their lack of story. Time spent exploring should be time well spent; the PCs should learn something important about the area, uncover a villain or stumble across a previously unknown map feature.

This is just a snippet of Joshua’s suggestions, he also offers detailed advice which can help any game.

I have played a sandbox-type game before, my goal was to take a high-level party into unexplored map, explore it, and clear an area out for construction of my castle. IT WAS FUN!!! The challenges were up to par with my level. I know that this isn’t something that a lot of players are into, building a fortress isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, but I found it both entertaining and engaging.

I will be trying the sandbox-style again, and I think that I have uncovered where I made my mistakes.

First, my goal was to dire. A race for a piece of artifact, and your competition is already on the island. I had already slowed stuff down pretty heavily with my Dopplegangers aboard the ship mystery, which went well. I was able to capture the feel and spirit of ship-life, but, I felt that it was time to speed up the pace, and I over-did it.

Also, map making is a skill that not every player has. I know that in our old group we had an anally-obsessive map-maker who drew complex maps as we went along, he knew how to get the details out of the DM which he needed to build a usable and accurate map of the area. This is very rare! I don’t have anyone like that currently playing.

Not a big deal, I am always trying a variety of different styles to see what the players like to do, they don’t like making maps, or maybe they just aren’t skilled enough players. Mapping terrain is easy, the problem is rivers and lakes, these I should place on the map before hand.

D&D also requires a slow and leisurely pace in order for me to be happy. I sacrificed minor accomplishments and achievements for fast pacing, and the game suffered for it. Capturing the setting is important, and it is normally the first thing that gets scrapped when a DM is in a rush.

Handling Searches by Diceroll

SEARCHING FOR THINGS can be a pain for both players and game masters alike. As a DM, I really try to leave as much up to the player’s imagination as possible. In the perfect world, I suppose that I would fully dress a room, but to be honest, I just don’t care enough to dress it in anything more then generalities. Not to mention that I play my games during the Victorian era, and those folks loved cluttering every corner of their rooms up with stuff. I simply couldn’t do it! Thus I just describe a room briefly, let the party know what they can safely assume a room is used for, describe the largest pieces of furniture, and maybe one or two things that catch their eyes at a glance. It is up to them to really drag what is in the room out of me.

The worst possible thing that could happen though is that they start searching the place, which gives them a slim chance of finding something, if anything is there. What exactly does this mean? That is what I intend to figure out today.


The biggest factor in searching for stuff like concealed doors, stashes of money, or clues, is the time that is involved in performing this action. Time affects two major aspects of the game. The first is Magic. Most spells are time sensitive, we have to know exactly how much time that the characters are going to spend looking for something, we must not ever forget to subtract this time from either spells or other time sensitive issues that can come up in a game.

The second thing that we should consider is the DM’s dream of “The Living World”. Are the characters snooping around where they don’t belong? Usually, they are! And for instances like this, we need to know the base chance of the person returning to catch the players red-handed. Alternatively, somebody else might spy this action going on as well and interrupt them, be it a guest, servant, or wandering monster.


I am sure that there are grumpy ol Dungeon Masters out there who would say that this whole system is weak. I can’t deny that! A player CAN open drawers and tap on walls, I’m not saying that this system isn’t lazy, however, it IS practical. Players love to pull this one, and they should be able to, after all, it is in the Players Handbook. We should keep to the rules, but, I feel that these rules can be expanded upon.

That said; let’s keep it as simple as possible. Something that we can remember without the need for any new “house rules” written down on paper. We’ll simply turn the search into an action, chopping it up into three different forms of search.

  • Brief Search
  • Regular Search
  • Thorough Search

Depending on how much time and energy a group wants to put forth an effort, determines different factors. This IS an action, and the party will continue doing this action until they are caught or interrupted. If they are caught or interrupted it will change their base chance of finding what they are looking for. It also changes how big of a mess that they are making, and increasing their chances of being discovered, even after the fact.


For every minute searching, the party will gain a 1% chance of finding whatever is hidden in the room. If the party knows exactly what they are looking for, or state specifically what they are searching for, then they get a 2% chance per minute of finding it if it is in the room.

For every two minutes spent searching, there may be a 1% chance of being discovered, depending on if they belong there or not.


To conduct a brief search, first all players involved must state this intention. Brief searches can take between 1 to 10 minutes. For each person in the party who is actively searching, the party gets a bonus of +1 (example: 4 people search a room for 10 minutes, they have a 14% chance of finding something which may be hidden.)

Brief searches are fast and simply looking at objects which are in plain view. They don’t open drawers or ruffle through personal property; they are merely examining the room for surface clues and items which are left out.


A Standard Search can take between 11 to 20 minutes, plus additional 1% bonus per member actively searching. This kind of search is more invasive. It details moving objects around, looking in drawers and chests, looking under beds, tapping walls, and looking through property.

Standard searches can locate objects which are not in plain view, but not hidden very well either. This includes concealed doors, but excludes secret doors.

The owner of the room may realize that someone has gone through his/her stuff, unless the party is taking special care to keep their activities clean; i.e. shutting cabinets and drawers and leaving the place the way that they found it. If they don’t state this, a wisdom check on the part of the victim will result in them being aware that their stuff has been tampered with. If a 1 is rolled, they probably know exactly who it was that did it. If any items are taken as a result of the search, then the victim will always know that they have been robbed and will take appropriate action. They may not know WHO stole from them, but they will know that they were robbed.


The Thorough Search can take anywhere from a half hour to an hour. While it gives better results, the chances of getting away with it are much slimmer. Unlike brief and standard searching, your chances of being interrupted are equal to your finding something.

Thorough searching is making a mess; it involves dumping the contents of drawers to look for false bottoms, upsetting furniture to see if they have any hidden compartments, ruffling up books to see if they are hiding anything within the pages. This is noisy and messy work, but it brings about very good results. Secret items and horded items can be located this way, as can secret doors and passageways.

Those that perform thorough searches don’t care if they are caught or not, only a thief who is employing his Move Silently skill can do this quietly, and only then if he is alone or with a party of others who successfully use this skill.

I am not so sure that I’d actually give out a 60 percent chance to locate objects for trashing a room, I would be really tempted to have anybody's best chances of finding anything in a search be 45%.

I would also be pressed to give negative results to the chances for intelligent targets. A wizard with an intelligence of 17 isn’t going to hide an object where anybody who trashes a room can stumble upon it; in fact, the only thing that you will ever be able to find of his when conducting a search is probably just the stuff that he WANTS you to find.

This system isn’t perfect, but it is better then simply rolling a 1 or a 2 on a d6. If you wish to expand it, there is a lot of room left to be worked on, however I like to keep things as simple as possible, and I’m not above making stuff up on the fly.

Adventure Notes #9 & 10

We finished up the old school module The Isle of Dread. It initially gave me a ton of prep to do, as this is a 1st edition game, and I had to update it to 2e. I'll go ahead and share a couple of the monsters later on, so watch this space.

My overall feelings about modules are that they are a pain, and this one was no different, however, it didn't completely derail my adventure. The module was written brilliantly, it was very neutral and just had encounters peppered here and there, it left the story completely up to the Dungeon Master, which is the way that it should be.

I really wanted the players to fight the book, with little to no input from myself. I added my villains into the random encounter lists, decided what I was going to have them do while on the island, and just let the party explore! It didn't work out so hot.

On paper, a complete wilderness adventure sounds great! Wandering around blind, not knowing where in the hell you are going, or really what you are looking for. In actual play, this was SLOW!!!! So slow that I was getting bored, and it was all the same thing. I thought that it would be fun, but plotting a coarse and deciding of where to go that day is frickin boring! I don't know if it was my fault, or if I did something wrong, or what. I thought about it! I really did. How can I spice this up? But with such a large map to explore, I really couldn't prep anything or describe a scene more clearer then what I was. I really didn't want to spend too much time talking about a day where nothing happens. I did give the place a lot of sounds and smells, but the players weren't all that interested, and I kept failing my random encounter checks.

I actually expected the party to get lost, I thought that this would be a 4 or 5 part adventure, however Shannon just used logic while looking at the blank map that I gave him, and pinpointed exactly where, aesthetically the main dungeon should be on the map, and just went there, and they made it during the first session. They actually got half way through the main dungeon before we decided to call it a day!

While inside, the badguys were 3 days ahead of them, and I was able to enjoy my "Great Race". Inside the temple there is a big god face, reminiscent of "Wizard of Oz" which I decided would be fun if the Villains used it to heckle the party. It worked wonderfully! They were trying to kill this rock face, while all of these zombies are attacking them, and my villain is just thinking that that is hilarious!

I had already drawn my villain route on the map, but there is just so many ways around this monster that it really did turn into a race. I messed with the map some, but for the most part, left it alone. The Players beat me fair and square! Which is what I wanted.

The party can now rip my 6 fingered hand party a new one. They were able to kill my wizard completely on accident. Since they were ahead, they were able to find better cover and turn the tables on them and winning. I sensed that their time was drawing to a close, so I was able to get the two gunfighters a chance to square off. A Sunset dual in a flooded cave, both gunfighters so powerful that they can kill with one attack. The winner of the Initiative would get first shot, and the villain was a bit more accurate then the hero, Sam White.

Sam got the drop on him and pumped the German wannabe full of lead. He made his system shock role, and was able to find cover and barely survive the encounter, however he didn't survive the game. Ultimately his friends fed him to their new master, a monster which almost killed the heroes!

Sam White, played by Shannon, almost dies in every game he plays. Only a couple of games did he need to be saved by divine intervention. I am really terrible, I love the character so much which is a problem. I have vowed to give him no more chances now, so don't you be yelling at me for cheating! But this Sam White is the perfect cowboy hero. I did have to protect him at lower levels, I didn't want him to have some stupid death because of a failed saving-throw. His death should be heroic, and that, I discovered, IS my job. I needed to give the party more opportunities to die a hero, instead of just stupid.

Shannon cheated death twice this game. The first when he proved that he was the fastest gun in the dungeon, and that no European was ever going to be a better gunslinger. And the second time was when fighting the written badasses, the Kupra, brain charming slug monsters with a mean streak the size of Texas. He was horribly beat up, and the monster knew that he was now the weak link, Sam could see this thing swimming right for him, and he has 2 hp to his name, if the monster so much as sneezes on him, he's a dead man! It is all up to the dice, he's got two attacks, and hitting these things isn't easy. He pumped off two shots, and did just enough damage to drop that disgusting cuthulu wanna-be.

The dungeon part was very exciting! But I really need to figure out some way to manage wilderness adventures. I've played them and had a great time! But this thing didn't even have a road.

I did find an excellent article here, that I really like! The dude over at 7-sided Die has translated a bookkeeping free way of managing supplies based on Savage Worlds. This would simplify things.

I don't know how to best handle something like that. There was just to much to do, and I kept it as fast as I could, but sometimes I was just stuck rolling hundreds of dice while the players forgot about the game for 10 minutes, and all because I DID roll a random encounter.

At the end, I didn't even want to go back outside of the dungeon. THAT was probably my own fault. I had spent the day before, brainstorming with my wife about a new world that I want to create, and regrettably, my head was still there. THIS ADVENTURE IS SUPPOSE TO BE MY BABY!!!!

After they took out the undead pirate monster-boss I just started adding up experience points and told them that they were able to leave the island, and the next adventure will take place right outside of the doors of were they need to be. I do want to wrap this game up, I've given myself a quota of 4 more adventure sessions and I do plan on keeping that deadline, however the fact still remains that this IS my baby, and I want to give it justice.

I recant, and I want to have one giant battle and a heroic escape from the Isle of Dread. Next adventure is going to be totally different. The need to win, because this next phase of the adventure they are going to lose, and lose and lose big!

We'll go from totally open gaming, to more of a total railroad job. The mysterious master of the realm, The Red Death, is not going to be playing around any more. The party is just a heartbeat away from gaining a weapon that can kill Gods, his attention will be totally on them, and he is going to hurt them, and hurt them bad! It is now time for the 2nd act, and nobody survives the 2nd act unscathed. Even if the players survive, they're characters will never be the same. SOUNDS LIKE FUN!

Fear Check!

Sometimes, while playing, you have absolutely no idea of how your character will react. I remember playing one of my favorite characters, a French noble/swashbuckler who had only had dealings with human enemies. The guy was 11th level and had never so much as seen even a 1st level goblin. Nor did he have a concept of magic of any kind, priest or wizard spells. Thus, when an odd gateway appeared, his interests were peaked, and he decided to explore it. It was a gate into a different realm which was full of magic and monsters fit for an 11th level adventure!

It was a gaggle of troll bandits blocking the road, that served as his first magical/monster encounter, and I must say that it absolutely destroyed him. I got to thinking about how he would react, and decided that he would no doubt use the tactics that he would normally use, sending fully armed cavalrymen to run them down with a pike-hedge to soften them up, and join in the fray to take them out. Well, it didn’t work, his horsemen never made it through and were slaughtered during the first attack. At this point, I had a decision to make: to attack, retreat, or surrender. The problem was, I had absolutely no idea what he would chose to do, and how he would process the information that has just been shown to him. I decided, on my own, that a fear check was definitely called for.


Fear checks can be a huge pain in the rear, they take away “free-will” from a character. If they fail a fear check, then the character will act in some way that hurts the character’s chances of success in overcoming a goal, and can harm the character for the rest of his/her career unless he focuses energy to correct it on a personal level.

Nobody wants to do a fear check, I know that I didn’t when I made one in the example above, and it cost me dearly. I failed the saving throw and went mad. I didn’t retreat, I didn’t just stand there to terrified to move. Something in my head snapped and I went crazy! Marching into battle as if my troops had succeeded, refusing to admit that I had been defeated so easily.

A player may not want to do a fear check, but they do know when to do one. It is up to a Dungeon Master to determine if a fear check is necessary and when it isn’t. For a player, when he has no idea of what to do next, or is in a situation that changes everything about how a character views the world around him, it is time to roll a check.

If you have ever played a game in the Ravenloft setting, then you know how a fear check can abuse a player. That is just to much, but one has to understand that a player can avoid them completely if they ROLE-PLAY. How is a character going to act if he/she sees something that he has never seen before?

A good example is a beholder. Now, we all know these things, and we know how hard they are to beat, but our characters may not. Beholders are 100% nasty! Everything about them is repulsive. Even if we have encountered one before, it still will make us question if we can take it or not. If the player gets scared, then he will roleplay the game, however if he is just as dispassionate about attacking this monster as he would be about purchasing a tent, then a DM should make him make a fear check.

The lesson of a fear check should be that YOU DON’T WANT TO MAKE ONE! Instead, if you believe that a character is afraid, he may still attack, we are playing heroes, however it will be different. A character won’t attack something that he doesn’t understand as quickly or effectively as something that he knows that he can defeat.


Probably the best book for an advanced method of making fear checks is Ravenloft: Domains of Dread by Willam W. Conners and Steve Miller, which TSR put out in 1997. This method is complicated, but very thorough.

An easier method is making a Saving Throw vs. Paralyzation, Poison, or Death Magic. This one is probably the easiest and fairest method, it also doesn’t require any new tables, which cuts down on crap that a DM needs to have at the table. Simple is always better!

Bonuses or penalties from high/low Wisdom can also influence a fear check, as can a new idea influenced by Domains of Dread, which suggests that a warrior can inspire those around him. If a warrior makes his fear check, then he has a bonus point for each level, which he can give to any player or NPC to help them make their fear or Moral checks as well. The logic behind this is that those around him are inspired by his bravery and will be less likely to crumble under pressure.

Not as simple, but it is an interesting theory that wouldn’t be to hard to put into practice.


A failed fear check means that a characters actions are beyond his control. We can either do this as described by the spell Cause Fear, or we can figure out a more abstract method of determining the results of the failure.

Basically, what will happen is that a character will lose their cool. He will either fight or flight. A failed fear check will also haunt the character later on if these same conditions are met.

Fear is different from campaign to campaign, a DM can create a table to reflect this. Here is a sample Table:

1. Character runs away, dropping all items carried so that he can run faster.
2-6. Character will run away, removing himself from the perceived danger, or until he is exhausted.
7-8. Character will fight blindly, as if under the influence of a Berserker Rage spell.
9-10. Character will be unable to move or act for 1 turn, or until he is attacked, at which time he will make a new fear check to regain senses.
11. Character will develop a phobia, he will suffer negative penalties to all rolls while in the creatures presents and will not be able to shake what he has seen and will be obsessed by it. Each time he runs into this monster, or believes that he has found evidence that one is around, he must make a fear check with the negative penalty to the roll.
12. Player must check System Shock, failure results in instant death, success indicates that a character is driven insane, or further into insanity as defined by the Dungeon Master.


That opened a new can of worms, but lets face it! The mind can only handle so much. This can be used as a tool to get roleplayer to have more fun. One has to really look at the character and know it, to determine a proper madness. This should be inconvenient, and should be appropriate to the setting that you are playing.

Madness can either be a good thing, or a bad thing. One can easily say that Batman is a good example of a hero gone mad. He still has control of his actions, however he is just as crazy as the criminals that he hunts. Van Helsing is another example of madness. He became so consumed that he became a professional hunter, and an expert on all things inexplicable. Thus, a mad character’s adventuring career isn’t over, however it can be shifted. If one isn’t careful it can distract away from a given story and change all of the goals which a player has chosen for his character.

Madness can be subtle or all consuming, depending on the character. A player who fails a fear check against a water monster can have an overwhelming phobia of water itself. He would refuse to feel safe in its presence, and be totally irrational about it.

Further fear checks in regards to existing phobias can be avoided by ROLE-PLAYING the phobia. If the player remembers that he’s got it, and acts accordingly, then you don’t need to further harass him with fear checks.

Besides aversions, madness can effect how a character sees the world around him. He can see things that aren’t there, believe things that aren’t true, etc. To simulate this, just pass a note to the player during play to let him know if he sees something differently, or notices something that the rest of the party isn’t looking for. Sometimes this evidence is true, and sometimes it isn’t! The player will never know.

Another form of madness is the split personality, perhaps he will turn into somebody that he isn’t. Developing a different character with a different outlook on life and different skills? Madness is unique to everybody, and is a defense for the mind. Keep this in mind.


A fear check is an easy thing to fix with magic, as long as it doesn’t lead to insanity. If a character is just afraid, a Remove Fear spell is all that is needed, however, depending on the game and how a DM handles magic, this could be a touch spell, at which time an initiative between the caster and the target must be determined. An afraid target will also be uncooperative with the caster, thus an attack must be made, and a saving throw vs. spell must be failed else the spell will be lost.

Madness, on the other hand, cannot be solved so easily. Phobia’s and other effects of horror that last long after the save was failed can only be corrected by a forget spell, if caught in time, or by committing ones self to the care of a mental health professional, which may or may not work depending on your desires as a Dungeon Master. The madness shouldn’t be something that is overly debilitative, or that dooms the character, unless, for whatever reason, the DM wants it to. It should redefine a character and alter, or give purpose to the person playing them.

Perfect Characters Vs. Game Balance

PRECONCEIVED CHARACTERS ARE BOTH blessing and a curse. When generating a new character, I tend to always go three d6 in order. I don’t do this because I’m some elitist slime or because I don’t care, it is simply that I’ve played ever class there is out there, and if I’m allowed to custom build my own character then I’ll always build the same one. It’s like going to my favorite expensive restaurants, I love going, but I always order the same thing.

Not to say that it isn’t bad to play a favorite character, but as a role-player, it isn’t just rules crunching that makes a game fantastic, but exploring the character that has been put out in front of me. Besides, the fact is that when it comes time to game, a character’s stats really don’t become that much of a factor. A player who knows how to use his head is always going to waste any super-character out there if the player relies solely on his ability scores to keep him alive.


People think that I’m full of it when I say that ability scores don’t matter. This isn’t a video game, just because you aren’t strong enough to lift the castle gate doesn’t mean that there isn’t another way inside. Hell, the goal of the game is to get inside. Yes, using your 18/00 STR is an easy way inside of the castle, but the key word is EASY, and if we really wanted it to be easy would we be playing the game?

There are more then just ability scores that can make a super character, there is also magic items that can contribute to the problem. You know, I’m a player too, and I want to have fun and it is really fun to add super magical items to a campaign! We do want people talking about our stuff, who doesn’t? We have access to some really cool stuff and so what if we sometimes get a wild hair up our butts and allow a player to find something so cool that it blows everybody’s minds (and usually the challenges as well), but once we commit to exploring something of this nature, then we have to be man enough to deal with the consequences, either by increasing the games difficulty, or by devising some method of keeping the object in check.

In the long run, it really isn’t Super Characters that are the problem, but a lack of balance. If we allow one character to possess to much power, then what does he need his fellow players for? We have to distribute the wealth, that is more important then curbing perfect characters. If a game isn’t balanced, then somebody is going to get upset, and rightfully so! D&D isn’t a spectator sport, we need to look at our party before we add treasure, and figure out who needs help and who doesn’t. If somebody is struggling to keep up, then we need to balance the game. BALANCE!!! That is one of the hardest jobs of a Dungeon Master’s, because this balance will be differently defined each and every time. Newer editions have tried to figure this one out on some mass scale, and you just can’t! It is impossible! There is no magic formula to aid you but your own judgment.

A Super Character is one that disrupts the balance. Players will always try to make them. They will fake die rolls, attempt to trick you, or even resort to down-right bullying to get their way. Many of the gamers who try to do this are either stuck. They have some preconceived notion of what their character is suppose to be, such as a Ranger or a Paladin, or they only want to play a specific class or a race. Others swear to god that you simply can’t play a character unless it has at least two scores above a fifteen. Still others don’t play the game to Role Play, but to crunch monsters. All of these are legitimate excuses! And we’ll have to have to meet halfway on some things, but I stress HALFWAY! This does not mean that we simply cater to their every demand. If we do that then we’ll just lose the respect of the players, and that should always be avoided for everybody’s sake.


I’m not going to tell you that all characters are playable, because obviously that isn’t the case. A character has to have at least one ability score of 9 to qualify for a class. If this isn’t the case then we can either quickly reroll all of the stats again.

A new role-player may also want to try a playing a specific class that he hasn’t gotten to play yet. This is cool! We can either move numbers around to fulfill the class or race, or we can just write in the bare requirements, it is up to you and your game. In the long run, STATS really don’t mean all that much, and as a DM we will be testing abilities from time to time, we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t intend for the player to fail from time to time.

If a player is really bitching about having low stats, and it is effecting his game, then we should compromise with him. We aren’t going to give him everything that he wants, but if he isn’t having a good time because he’s a crunch master then there isn’t anything wrong with compromise, just keep in mind that we need the game to be balanced. Try to get the player involved in his “underpowered” character, give him some ideas that might help him with figuring the role-playing out. Say we get a Min-Maxer who always has to play a Paladin, well, instead of just giving him the min-requirements of the class, we’ll just tell him that maybe this character wants to be a Paladin, and strives to live up to the code. Heck, he might actually believe that he IS a paladin! Always try to encourage role-playing in experienced gamers, and when you do “fix” a stat, never go above a 15. That should be a hard limit! We will make an exception only for a player who wants to try playing a specialty class for the first time, specialty classes are suppose to be rare, that is one way of making a natural paladin or illusionist more exciting.

Threes in a stat can be a bad thing! But it does give us some fun things to roleplay. Imperfect characters are fun to play! I had a character with a CON of 3, he was a chicken, and always believed that he was going to contract some crazy illness that would kill him. I always had a backup character, for the day that he did die (which he never did) but I enjoyed playing him. I was always amazed at his survival right along with everybody else!

Players who are all about the crunch have videogames, and it is up to us to encourage the art of Role-Playing and creativity. We can do this with crunch experts, most of the time they just need a gentle tap to get them to leave their comfort zone and explore different aspects of the game. This is a social game, and chances are, the cruncher is still playing just to get out of the house and visit with friends, we shouldn’t punish him for it. If he thinks that he needs 2 stats that are 15 then so be it, after all, it is just a game, and games are meant to be fun for everybody involved.


As I said above, this is all about balance. We need to look at Role-playing as well as Crunch. If a character is struggling with either, then he may need some tips. This is a hobby! True role-players are always striving to become better roleplayers! We honestly don’t need any one-man armies running around who aren’t villains. Look at how your party is behaving, how fast they are going through monsters, and who is doing the killing. If it is just one person, then we need to target this individual. A game can be unbalanced from high stats, magical items, or levels, which all of these things, thankfully, are easy to fix.

In our arsenal we have monsters and magic that can drain stats, destroy items, and consume levels; the trick is to take only what you want, we are looking to achieve balance, not change the nature of the balance. If by attacking a specific character with an ability eating monster, we are only turning other characters into stronger characters then we committed an error. Balance isn’t all of the characters being the same! The party has to identify their strengths and weaknesses within the ranks, we may not be dealing with a super character, but instead, with a player who is just a better gamer.

With this in mind, maybe the problem isn’t that a character is too strong, but that the others are to weak? We need to identify a characters strengths and weaknesses as well, and design elements which capitalize on a specific characters strength, as well as taking advantage of weaknesses within the characters themselves.

We can’t just assume that if one player is chopping threw monsters, that the problem is lays with him because it could be that the problem can be identified with the DM himself! We need to cater to ALL of the players at the table, not just one or two.


I enjoy a variety when I write my games, however there is always an ongoing theme or trend. Sometimes I want to explore different aspects of the game and I want to ignore basic rules. For instance, my current game involves world travel and I really don’t want to have to worry if my players can afford it or not, thus they are all loaded! And we are talking filthy rich. Money is not a motivator in this game, and it serves only one purpose, and that is to purchase supplies which aren’t a big deal.

I am prepared to live with this, DURING THIS GAME! Now, say a player wants to take this character and play it again, either under a new DM or even under myself when I have a different story to tell, the size of their wallets is definitely going to be a problem. ALL of my players are loaded at this point, thus what is balanced in this game, may not be balanced in a different one.

Playing an old character isn’t a new idea, and as long as it is of the appropriate level, it isn’t an unreasonable request! I have played several favorite characters under many different DM’s. The key word is BALANCE! What can be a strong character in one game, can be fatally weak under another, and vice-versa. Before allowing a character from another DM or game to enter a current campaign, we first must sit down with the player and talk about this character. What do they hope to get out of it, look over their equipment and question any items that you aren’t sure about. How rich is this person? What is his favorite weapon or spell? If you judge a character as too strong for the campaign, then you’ll need to discuss with the player about limiting it. Maybe, at one time, it was okay to have a +5 Battle Axe of 10d4 Magic Missiles; before he begins play you must make him aware that he must leave this insane tool at home!

If he is underpowered, run a quick one-on-one game where he can earn experience and an appropriate magical item. This will help you get a feel for the character so that you are ready on game-day, rather then be surprised with he suddenly summons Mr. Peepers, his pet Dragon. Let him know up front, what he can and cannot take with him into the new game, that way you can both avoid arguments in the future, which, while fun for other players to watch, does get tedious if not limited to more then a few minutes.

Stats can also be limited by invention, perhaps he has been cursed by some NPC or has a run in with a ghost. This must be taken seriously though. As a general rule, if the PC in question has 18’s straight across the board, turn him down out of shear principal because he IS making fun of you, trust me.


Wishes are both fun, and a pain in the butt. Thank god they are rare! A DM will never allow a player to CHEAT THE GAME! However there is a little dance going on, as you, the DM, are giving the player a chance to outsmart you.

Players who outsmart the DM should be awarded, fore this is one of the goals of the game. However the rules themselves must NEVER be out smarted. When granting wishes, we must take things literally, and I do mean just that! We should also twist the wish in some way, bend it to the laws of magic. Magic is not a science! It is a very mystifying thing. If one wishes for great riches, these riches have to come from someplace.

A player is sometimes tempted to wish for greater ability scores. This is easily handled: Players cannot cast wishes for the characters, they must cast wishes AS the character, no exceptions. Thus they can’t say I wish I had Strength of 25, this doesn’t mean anything at all! Now if they say that they wish that THEY physically were stronger, then, as long as their STR isn’t 18 (or 18/00 if a fighter) then you can go ahead and give them 1 point of STR, however we cannot cheat the rules, humans aren’t allowed to have over 18 STR, thus we only give them ¼ of a point, thus it will take 4 wishes to reach STR of 19, and THAT is a lot of wishes. If they are still intent on this dumb idea, then keep doubling the amount of wishes that it takes to achieve a full point. We can also play a dirty trick, especially if the caster of this wish is a dirty little trickster. A player can wish for great strength, and the wish will be granted, however at the cost of burning up 2 or 3 points from another ability score, such as CON or DEX.

Players should be terrified of wishes, especially ones in which they area dealing with creatures of evil. Yes, the Devil will play the game, however he is ALWAYS going to come out ahead in the long run.

Children in History

THERE IS SOME HUBBUB ABOUT A NEW PRODUCT that has brought to many, a sense of disgust. I shan’t be giving this specific product any more attention then it already has. Of course finding out what it is will only take a few second for my readers, but that is beyond the point.

I really do strive to keep it PG around here, but this will be one of the times where parents may not agree with me that I am riding the line properly. To them, I am sorry.

History itself his many lessons to teach us, but when it comes to certain topics, those whom bring forth this knowledge are made to pay. It is outrageous! I am glad that people still get upset about such things, it proves that we aren’t morally bankrupt or dead. Probably the biggest changes that we have made as a species, is how we raise and treat children, as well as their roles in society.

I’m not going to beat around the bush, this article isn’t going to be nice. Conditions of the world itself demanded a different set of rules. The life expectancy for any one person was 10 to 27-years-old depending on when and where you were born. There was no such thing as birth control, families often had too many children, and many children were conceived as the result of a crime which was committed upon them.

In our ancestors defense, they didn’t have as much free time as we do today, they never got a chance to sit and ponder the philosophy of Child Rearing. They never got a chance to do much thinking of any kind, work was backbreaking and exhausting. This is the average, therefore our leisure and happiness is not the norm when looking back through the ages, it is a very rare exception!


All one has to really do is just look at the daily activity of a society to understand. The role of a man was harsh. If he was lucky to have a job it wasn’t one of those eight hour deals. He didn’t get paid by the hour. If he had a skill he worked from the time that he got up until the time that he went to bed.

Women had it no better. Their jobs were in the home, cooking was an all day thing. Where do children fit into this? Well the obvious answer is that they don’t! Children were used as extra labor. In the rural communities your life was better then in the city. City life for a child was hellish.

In the city, your average family was broken. Your mother and father were typically addicted to vice. Homes were rare and you spent your entire life barely scraping by. Adult life was unbearable, children were often left to their own devices.

It was expectable to abandon newborn children. It wasn’t just acceptable, it was required! You barely have enough money to get food and shelter for yourself! People would try to give the babies to friends or family who may be in a better position then you, but your options are limited.

Babies left abandoned either died from exposure, were eaten by stray dogs, or picked up by someone who would keep the child as there own, but, more often then not, as a pet or a slave.

The rich did not raise their own children, they hired this job out. Everybody below this scale had a more difficult time, the hardest part was waiting for a child to grow to the age of 5, THEN the child could start giving back.


In the 1900’s people threw a fit because this was the year that children were ordered by the government to be educated at the expense of their parents. For the first time in history, it actually COST money to have a child, needless to say this went over about as well as a pig in a bathing suit. Education is still a fairly new concept. Many societies had schools, however only the very rich could afford them. For the rest of us, there was labor!

Rural families, of course worked beside their kids. One spent their entire life within the 15-25 miles of which they were born. City kids also had to work, many jobs were designated as “YOUTH JOBS“. These weren’t easy, we are talking about mining ore and other harsh physical labor! Typically, for a job of this kind your father would sell you. In Rome, you were allowed to sell boys up to 3 times. By law, on the forth time the child was worthless and had to be given away for free.

If you were a lucky child, your father could find a tradesman who will except you. You’d be an apprentice, cleaning up the work space, helping the craftsman with extremely labor intensive and highly dangerous work. With so many children running around, you didn’t have very long to make a good impression. The bulk of the children failed at this job and were forced to roam the streets aimlessly doing petty work, or worse.

This was for boys, girls had it much worse. Poor families who were slaves themselves just couldn’t afford too many girls. Maybe 1 if they were wealthy enough. These girls could only help their mother, and were judged worthless until they were of marrying age. The age of marriage was between 11 and 17, anything older then seventeen; you were judged as too old, and guess what happened to them!


Prostitution was always the fastest way to earn a buck, and both boys and girls partook in this trade. It is disgusting, however this sad life was even prevalent in American cities up to the early 1900’s, before the state really decided to crack down on it. It is still an active problem in some Eastern Cultures, and it does still happen under our own noses right here in the West. People have always been sick, this isn’t a new trend.


By the age of 13, you were considered to be an adult. Until this time all of the money that you have earned went directly to your parents. Of course, it wasn’t rare to have all of the living generations of a family living in the same tiny house. With women being so rare, since they are more expensive to raise, your chances of getting married aren’t very good. Women were considered to be an investment! They could bring more wealth to the family, well they had to potential to anyway.


The spur in people’s goats right now is the details of casting a spell that requires the sacrifice of a human. Human sacrifice was rare, at least when it comes to sacrificing your own blood. In fact, the only faith that I know of that actually practiced this was the Celts who would sacrifice a local baby boy every year and eat it. Most of the time it was either animals (which were equally expensive) or captured enemies.


Where does this stuff belong in the games that we play? Well, it depends on our own style, just like it always has! Much of this stuff is simply fluff. We play more fantastic worlds then anything else, however the very idea of children in the game is often ignored. Normally the only time that we see them, they are either being kidnapped or living healthy, happy lives while playing “ring around the rosy” in their parents yards.

THIS IS FINE! We always have the final say so, but I do think that D&D is also a teaching tool, and culture shock is a great lesson that we can all stand to learn a bit better. There is a reason why we play adventurers over carpenters. All of our character’s have sad backgrounds that act as motivations for doing what they do. If they were happy they wouldn’t be risking their lives over a handful of gold, nor seeking glory just for the sake of it.

I bring this up because it is part of our jobs to be taking back as much gold as we possibly can, and what better way to take it back then to have them give it to their families? No doubt they will need it! Perhaps the family roles could take more precedence then what they normally do? It is an option.

Taking this article into account: It is stated that our characters start off at 1st level at ages between 15 and 19-years-old. This is really conservative, perhaps, for characters who possess no usable trade, we should start off with a base age of 13 + 1d4? Innocence was something that one lost before the draw of one’s first breath.

Making Monsters Monsterous

The fun thing about video games is trying to find the right weapon to get the job done. What hurts what monster. Sometimes this is easy, and sometimes it is really hard. Now, of course Dungeons & Dragons and Video games are apples and oranges.

One of the problems with D&D is that players get to know the monsters. They know that piercing weapons only do half damage to skeletons, and that using a lightning bolt against a flesh golem isn’t a good idea. This isn’t on purpose, player knowledge just happens! We DM’s shouldn’t get mad about it, or force the player to change the way that they play, because this problem is actually up to US to solve by ticking up the difficulty level.

How do you do this? Well first off, quit telling the players what they are dealing with.


You see a man kneeling over the shape of a woman, his clothes are tattered and stained with blood. You notice that the woman doesn‘t appear to be moving anymore, and the man‘s shoulders indicate that he is weeping.

How close do you need to be to realize that the man isn’t crying over the woman, but eating her? You probably won’t, especially if you aren’t suspecting anything like this is going on. We also don’t know the actual nature of this monster. It could be a zombie, a ghoul, or even a vampire! We’ll be keeping this a secret for as long as we can, and we’ll just let the player assume whatever they want to, and we’ll NEVER use the term zombie, ghoul, or vampire. With a scene above, even a Zombie should be able to gain the first attack, regardless of what the rules say about a zombie always getting to attack last. There will be a delay on the part of the characters as what is REALLY happening sinks in. If the characters recognize the girl, or the man then this could force the characters to react as if a Cause Fear spell had been cast from a low level.

After a character knows what the things minions are, such as undead or goblins or what have you, you can use the things name, but this can also go to your advantage.

The smell of death assaults you as you open the door, revealing a wooden staircase. At the foot of the stairs is a zombie, and he sees you as well. A dry hiss escapes his lips as he begins to shuffle up the steps, pure menace and hate in his eyes.

Now, just because I said that it was a zombie, doesn’t really mean that it is, or tell the characters exactly what it is. It could be a Ju-Ju Zombie, it could be a Revenant, it could be a prisoner suffering under the effects of a Feign Undead spell, they don’t really know, we just described it’s nature, not it’s true type. They will just assume that it is an average zombie, and attack it as such.

Another matter of perspective is the Boss, or Sub-Boss. The boss is in control, if the creatures are of lawful nature, he’ll be the one directing traffic, if the creatures are chaotic, he’ll be the meanest and strongest of the lot. Can the PC’s detect this with their eyes or their 5 senses? Probably not right off the bat. We’ll keep this things true identity a secret as long as possible, trying to save this until the end of the session.


Each monster has a special skill, it is up to us to really study the monsters and think of ways to use these skills effectively. Since we’ll be doing things as a mystery, the first contact a party will have with a monster will be evidence of it’s powers, usually without actually knowing that they are in fact looking at this. After the adventure is over, they’ll be able to look back at the clues and realize what they had missed.

These things should be going on for quite some time before anyone notices. A power of a Black Dragon is to taint the water supply. Dragons don’t like to be bugged, they are also to smart to just fly into town and burn it down, being sneaky, all they have to do to destroy a town is taint the water and force the settlement to abandon their homes because of lack of clean drinking water. Perhaps a group of adventurers will be employed to enter the forest and see if they can find the cause of this disaster?

Usually, it is all in the way you describe the situation. Information shouldn’t be given out. Instead of people being turned to stone, elaborate Statues are appearing outside of town, surely a gift from the gods!! How long will it take before somebody realizes that People are disappearing and the statues are being made in their likeness? There is no consensus to the city or village, in fact, most of the victims would be travelers anyway. Perhaps the rich are collecting these things as art objects? Churches buying them up and proclaiming them to be miracles?

How can a given power be used subtly? How would people interpret the information? Can something good be found in the power before it booms out of control?


The golden rule, is, of course, those that have the gold, make the rules. The upper-class, the knowledgeable scholars know that there isn’t any such thing as monsters. Those that see them will always be ridiculed, a scholar who finds it his business to seek them out will be seen as an idiot and not worth the time of day. Monsters are primitive fears created by fools. We must move forward, not look backwards to some tired religious concepts, which can‘t be true.

Some may believe, but find it their duty to cover such things up, as it would surely cause mass panic. Others would just sit on their high stools and not be bothered to research things of such fantasy, and simply ridicule those who would seek their help.

This isolates the Players. Even if brought the evidence of a massive zombie epidemic, those in charge will insist that it was nothing but an illness such as leprosy, and those that claim otherwise are feeble of mind and superstitious fools. It is THIS belief that strengthens the monsters. The constable will always seek the wrong leads, and refuse to give any credit to clues that don’t fit their version of the facts. They won’t help the Players in any way but to discredit them, or give them a false sense of security by claiming that they have the problem under control.

Magic, of course screws this up some, but it doesn’t have to. Wizards are so rare that they are just old men who are equally as blind as the officials are. If it doesn’t exist in their own personal spell books, then it simply doesn’t exist! Priests are much the same way, only more vicious. Those whom do anything outside of their own powers are heretics and must be destroyed.

If this is impossible, because your current campaign, or your players prefer a magic heavy campaign, then you’ll need to think of some other reason why the village needs the PCs to solve this mystery for them, the above suggestion is just how I run my campaigns. A little bit of elbow grease will help you flush out how to get this done in your own style.


It is always better to have a monster be too strong, then it is to have it be to weak. Especially with a mystery type of campaign. Sometimes the party will know exactly what the monster is, such as the case of a werewolf, and it becomes a matter of whom is the werewolf. For this kind of story, we’ll want the best specimen that we can find! Max hit points, if this still isn’t strong enough, then we’ll need to modify it further.

Many DM’s have this misconception about monsters, that all of them need ecology. The fact is that more then 85% of the monsters in the Monster Manual are drawn from myth and legend of this planet and this plane of existence. Monsters have no place in society except to torment and feed upon us. Trolls don’t need to have babies, Medusa doesn’t tend a garden or sell pumpkins on the side of the road. Why they exist is up to you, but don’t be afraid to pop up a random monster if it will fit your setting. Obviously if you want to go less fantasy and more horror then you’ll not have Elves or Goblins building their own cities. These would be things that only exist when it is convenient for us, the DM, to have them around. If the werewolf or whatever monster that you want to use isn’t strong enough to challenge the party, then create a Greater Werewolf, or a greater form of Lycanthropy that will better fit your idea of what would make it more exciting.

Make the monster harder to hit, give him a higher hit die. A good example of me disagreeing with the Monster Manual is the AD&D Vampire. Those things are not even remotely entertaining as is. My vampires are more like the movie vampires of yore, they don’t always drain levels, usually they drain Constitution or permanent hp, it just depends on if I want the Vampire to be a major part of the story, or if they are just window dressing. A vampire lord and a vampire minion actually do have their own ecology. Is it still playing D&D? Of course it is! When a player knows what to expect from a monster, THAT is a bigger problem then creating monsters which are unique to your world.


There isn’t any easy way to do this, but it isn’t as hard for 2e as it is for any version afterwards, so consider yourself lucky. Why all monsters need to be compatible with PC stats is beyond me. Just look at the example of the Mummy in your MM. They have your typical mummies, as well as having a much powerful BOSS type mummy. Maybe throwing some magic user abilities and increasing intelligence is all you need to do, but we should know WHY this is so, even if that answer is a mystic one, such as the god of Boltivar, the werewolf god delivered upon his children the dark messiah, or a creature that slipped out of a secret gate, it really doesn’t matter, but we the DM needs to know what separates this monster from his lesser kin, and what would happen if he were to aggressively hunt these lesser beings. Would he recruit, strengthen, or kill them?


Since we’ll be focusing on extreme power, they must have a weakness which can be exploited. Our mystery monster will be able to kill any of the PCs if he can get them to separate from the party, and be able to kill them in two attacks or less. Because of this extreme power, he must have a fatal flaw. This should not be something that is obvious, but something that the party must research and have to formulate a trap for the beast in order to exploit it.

This can also be used for any monster which can really push a party to the edge of what they can handle. Even a party of four first level players can handle something as powerful as a ghost as long as you give it a fatal weakness and the players don’t try something stupid like a full frontal assault. This weakness can be attacking a specific structure, such as a tombstone or a specific tree located in the woods. It can be anything, any attacks towards the monster itself will be fruitless, however destroying the book that summoned him into being could utterly destroy him without much work, besides doing the research to find out the creatures weakness.

A weakness could also be a specific attack, or only a specific weapon. The weakness should say something about the creature. The weakness could be known to the creature, or it could be blissfully unaware that the flaw exists to begin with.


Illusionists make excellent badguys. The rakshasa is an excellent villain, they are listed as having tiger-heads on human bodies, but why? Why not let the rakshasa disguise himself until the very end? Since this is a mystery, we’ll also want to create a list of NPCs/suspects. If the monster is a shape shifter, or if it is controlled by a person then it is best if this NPC is somebody whom the players know. They don’t have to be intimate with them, or buddy buddy, however it should be somebody that the players will know instantly when it is time to do the big reveal.

Depending on the monsters intelligence, he will either leave clues accidentally, or leave clues to frame somebody else, but there should be some REAL clues there. Ask yourself if the monster is capable of covering up its own tracks, or if it is just so bestial that it doesn’t care. Maybe somebody lives in the community that just screams MONSTER! A grizzly, grumpy old trapper who lives by himself in the woods and only comes to town for supplies, this would be the perfect patsy. A smart monster will leave false clues behind. Maybe the villain himself is a vampire but he carries himself, and dresses his home to mislead others to believe that he is a werewolf? If the locals could find or kill this monster on their own, then they would. Why can’t they? This is up to you to decide.


This thing, of course, is on a killing rampage. There is a formula that the DM should follow, formulas are there for a reason, these things are tried and true. This formula is the bones of the adventure, the skeleton that holds the whole thing up, and is as follows.

The Players investigate a murder scene that has already been cleaned up.
The Players investigate a fresh murder scene.
The players have a chance to stop a murder.
The players confront the murderer and destroy him.

This is the bare bones of the story, you’ll need to flesh this formula out, and try to hide it under the story so that the players don’t detect that you are in fact USING a formula, at least not on a conscious level. This is our PLOT, but a good mystery needs more then just plot, as the Dungeon Master, it is your chore to make it real. To do this, you can either write the daily activity of the monster, or create a random chart of events that you will check daily.

Random Sabotage Generator (1d12)

1. Poison Food
2. Broken rigging
3. Fire in kitchen
4. Robbed Lockbox
5. Key to arms room stolen
6. Cannon strap breaks, cannon lose on deck
7. Powder keg explodes
8. Diseased rat
9. Fight, mutiny
10. Man over board
11. Lifeboat hull broken
12. Engine breaks down

Now that was a chart that I used for Dopplegangers aboard a ship, but you get the idea.


Some monsters will first send in a harbinger of doom to prepare the area before they attack. They remove threats, prepare a lair, eliminate people whom the master fears, and do all of the all-around dirty work believing that they will some how be rewarded for their deeds, however as history tells us, they never are. Their only reward is typically a quick and painless death.

The Harbinger can give clues, however these clues are disguised as ravings of a lunatic. He will never be very helpful unless you have a bottle or something that you wish to be thrown at your head, but there are two kinds of Harbingers. 1.) The Stranger: A man who has never been to the area but is causing all sorts of trouble. Killing animals, cutting off communications, burning down guard towers and weak points of military areas, eliminating spell casters until he is captured. He has no ties to the area. 2.) The Lunatic: This character is from the area, but for an unknown reason, has gone mad. Normally he can hide this fact while he does his dirty work, which is the same stuff as the stranger, however since he knows the area very well, he can do it without getting caught. He can also purchase property and continue to do his job, blending in. A very dangerous harbinger! His crimes will continue alongside his master, and will confuse the researchers. It can also give them a false sense of security when he is captured or killed.

Highly intelligent monsters will employ a Harbinger, usually through trickery and magic. If a monster can charm or in other ways control the minds of others, then this will indicate that a harbinger can be designed. His life expectancy will depend upon how useful that he is. If he is running around cutting throats while the monster feeds, the monster will release him if he is captured. However if his work is done, and the monster fears that he will reveal too much information, he’ll kill the harbinger in a way that will horrify anyone who discovers the body.

Now typically the Harbinger will start out as a 0th level NPC when the monster finds him. He will, however, be augmented to be more dangerous. We can just assume that it is the powers of darkness and evil, or extra strength due to pure insanity. This special ability should aid the Harbinger, for instance if he is to kill enemies of his master, he’ll have the ability to backstab, as well as possess other thief skills that will help him be more effective. He could also have a special tool or magic item which was given to him by his master to aid him. The item will only work for him and will turn into a cursed item if it falls into the wrong hands.


Sometimes a weak person discovers an item that allows him to control a monster. These attacks can appear to be random, however in reality what is really going on is the abuse of power. The true villain is a weak human who has an indestructible monster at his mercy, and has been driven mad with power. Using this monster to kill anyone for even the slightest or perceived misdeed.

Now, again we have a problem. Once the adventure is over, the wicked person has been exposed and the item is in safe hands, the PC’s might refuse to give up this item. Of course the thing has to be cursed, and it has to be a curse that will offset the power, this has to be considered before the players touch it, as if we don’t then we can bring ourselves a lot of grief. For secret bosses, and powerful magic items that boast steep curses, we’ll also need a depositor; an NPC that can safely handle the item and see to it’s destruction or safe keeping. This could even be the monster itself!


This is an easy method of play. A mystical beast is plaguing the community. This involves discovering the nature of the beast, it’s weakness, and finding it’s lair or hunting it, while being hunted by it yourself. FUN STUFF!

Mystery is a very important element with this kind of thing. We don’t want the dreaded “1st level Goblin” adventure, we want something scary. A monster which breaks the rules. It kills both for food as well as for sport and seems to ignore the rules laid down by nature. This can either be a natural monster, or a mythical beast with no ecology what so ever. A beast that seems to come and go as it pleases. It can cut into the night like a knife, and disappear just as quickly. Hunting this thing will be very dangerous because it is intelligent, and can plan, as well as identify traps, and the strength to destroy all things in its path.

Perhaps this thing is working alone, or it could be another number. Animals which are natural to the area will probably take the blame until somebody can identify this creature. It need not be an animal either; Trolls make great Bigfoot type enemies, their tracks would both mystify and horrify the locals who discover them.


As an example of bringing forth mystical creatures, lets explore one myth that comes from Illini Indian Tribe which reported a monstrous winged creature, its scaly horse-like body feathered and painted green, black, and read, with an evil red-eyed face, a rack of terrible antlers, a long beard, razor sharp claws and teeth, and finally, a tail that was so long that it could wrap its body up within it.

This great terror would sweep out of the sky, grab men and carry them off to some cruel fate. It attacked with such regularity that it had to be stopped, however nothing that the warriors had would cause it any harm nor stop it in any way. Finally, the Chief, Chief Ouatoga, sought refuge and guidance from the spirits. He entered the woods and fasted and prayed to the Great Spirit, imploring the god to grant his people salvation. At last the Great Spirit whispered into Ouatoga’s ear, telling him of the Piasa birds only weakness.

That very day Ouatoga gathered up his greatest warriors and implemented his plan. The party climbed to the top of the highest bluff, soon they heard the piercing scream of the Piasa and saw it’s dark form in the sky above. It swooped down upon Ouatoga, who fell to the ground and gripped a tree root with all his might.

As the bird grabbed Ouatoga, the warriors released a volley of arrows into the bird, aiming for the soft flesh below the Piasa bird’s wings, the weakness described by the Great Spirit. The Piasa screamed and attempted to take to the air when another hail of arrows found their mark. At last the Piasa uttered a final shriek and plummeted over the cliff, into the river below. The triumphant Illini braves and their wounded Chief cheered as the body sank into the churning waters below.

In game terms, the warriors must lose the first imitative. A successful attack must take place on a very strong individual who can hold the bird down, while taking damage from this fierce thing. The hero being attacked must compete with the bird in a feat of strength while his party shoots arrows into it.

This beast isn’t natural to the area, it is the exact opposite, a creature of evil and death. It may have a lair full of bones, and it does eat the victims it catches, but where it comes from we really never will find out, nor does it matter. It is a magical creature and magic is suppose to defy logic, fore THAT is the very nature of magic.


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